Many consumers rarely think about where the food and products they buy come from, nor do they understand how harmful the production of these items can be on people and our environment.
In fact, these consumer goods are responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of tropical deforestation, 80% of global water use and three-quarters of forced and child labor. That’s a message that Arizona State University’s Sustainability Consortium (TSC) tries to convey to the public in their annual impact report.
This report, released on May 13, shows the work they do is helping consumer goods companies have a positive impact on the planet.
“Our data is showing that our work and engagement with retailers is continuing to make progress on people and the environment,” said Kevin Dooley, TSC’s chief research scientist and a senior sustainability scientist with ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. “We’re not only influencing the big leaders but it’s trickling to the privately owned medium- and small-sized companies that are not usually known for practicing sustainability.”
This year’s report shows that manufacturers' scores have improved 7% from 2019 to 2020 and 38% since 2016.
The scores are based on a TSC-created model called The Sustainability Insight System (THESIS), powered by SupplyShift. THESIS is an independent, science-based performance management solution that allows brands and manufacturers to understand the sustainability story of their products, to quickly identify ways to improve, and to communicate that story to retailers, customers, investors and consumers.
Since 2009, ASU and the University of Arkansas recognized an opportunity for an organization to make it their mission to push consumer products to become more sustainable. It was this common vision the led to the establishment of this groundbreaking organization.
TSC, which counts more than 100 businesses, nonprofits and academic institutions as members, created a science-based system where research insights into nearly 130 product categories are offered to companies. It represents the triple bottom line approach to sustainability that’s not only good for the environment but a way for retailers to work cooperatively with their suppliers and manufacturers to not only make products more sustainable, but to also see into their supply chains very clearly.
Products range anywhere from adhesive tape to toys, root vegetables to refrigerators, cell phones to cherries, and shampoo to stationery.
Manufacturers performing THESIS assessments represent an estimated total of $911 billion in total annual retail sales.
“The breadth and complexity of consumer goods supply chains means there are sustainability impacts left, right and center," said Euan Murray, chief executive of The Sustainability Consortium. "It also means there’s no single solution. So, we have taken the best sustainability science and turned that into the business-friendly THESIS tool.”
Despite a challenging year with the pandemic, Dooley said the companies using TSC’s THESIS index have made significant improvements in greenhouse gas emissions, water use intensity, worker health and safety, and biodiversity in sourcing.
Dooley said consumer attitudes have drastically changed in the last three years; consumers are demanding that manufacturers and retailers adopt new practices and design more environmentally sustainable products.
“Retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Kroger and Walgreens now realize that they need to do this regardless if consumers are interested or not,” Dooley said. “Their reputation is at risk, which in turn means their supply could be at risk. They understand what’s at stake and they are engaged.”
This year’s impact report also disclosed:
- TSC details that some companies are making good progress, especially in textiles and electronics, while several systematic issues remain, like sustainable packaging and deforestation.
- THESIS users, who are made up of suppliers and manufacturers, reported that 45% did not report their sustainability performance publicly, meaning that just about half of companies do not have public sustainability goals, which are in demand by consumers who are researching brands to decide what to purchase (or not purchase).
- 93% of suppliers and manufacturers took actions to improve their products.
- The packaging of products is becoming more sustainable across almost all product categories, meaning that companies are investing not only in packaging that can be recycled, but also in the processes to recycle packaging.
- Companies producing home and personal care products (shampoo, makeup, household cleaners, etc.) are implementing safer ingredients in the formulas of their products – driven by consumer education and demand.
- In electronics, 90% of companies are sourcing minerals from conflict-free smelters.
- Almost all textile and clothing manufacturers were improving rapidly on issues like labor rights and worker health and safety.
Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images.